CARY, N.C. – So far, so good.
A huge decision loomed on the horizon for Virginia senior standouts Morgan Stith and Kate Norbo as the 2012 NCAA Division I women’s soccer campaign drew to a close. Should they stay with the Cavaliers for a fifth season in 2013 or move on?
Both women were forced to sit out most of their junior years due to injuries, but after returning in 2012, they helped lead Virginia to an 18-5-1 record and the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. A national title seemed a very real possibility once 2013 rolled around, and in the end, it was just too hard to walk away from it all.
They stayed put in Charlottesville, and now stand just two games from the elusive crown. The Cavaliers advanced to this weekend’s College Cup with a 2-1 victory against Michigan in the NCAA quarterfinals on Nov. 30.
“This weekend is the culmination of my entire soccer career,” Stith said, a foreign affairs major who’ll start her professional career as a portfolio manager in Baltimore. “My first couple of years at Virginia we were kind of on the cusp, kind of good but not great. A win this weekend would just be the icing on the cake of all the hard work my teammates and I have put in this year. It would just be perfect.”
Once Stith opted to stick around, it took just a few days for Norbo to do the same. They had a bond, and had been through a lot together – their injuries, big wins, disappointing losses, road trips, rooming together and now sharing an apartment. Stith plays right outside back, and Norbo handles right outside midfield.
It wasn’t just Stith, either, that kept Norbo at Virginia. It was also head coach Steve Swanson and a group of teammates with whom she’d formed a rock-solid bond.
Dental school at Virginia Commonwealth – where she was accepted just last week – could wait. Coming back was never a given, never an easy one, but she’s content with it.
“When it came down to it, I made a commitment to this team,” Norbo explained. “I just felt like I owed it to the team and owed it to myself to come back for this fifth year. When it came down to it, I’m never going to have this opportunity again to play college soccer. I have the whole rest of my life to be out there in the working world. I just wasn’t ready to give up soccer yet.”
Stith felt that she was playing some of the best soccer of her career going into the 2011 schedule. At the same time, though, she was routinely experiencing a nagging pain her lower left leg. Wanting so badly to play on a team that had potential to win it all, she attempted to work through the soreness before hanging it up for the season.
As it turned out, she had a stress fracture of her left fibula.
“I talked to our trainer about it, and there was no point in me risking playing and getting a bad tackle and really breaking my leg,” she said. “It was really hard to sit there and watch my teammates. We were having a great season, and I just wanted to be a part of it so bad.”
Now, she has a shot at redemption.
“It was kind of a blessing in disguise that I got to stay this season,” Stith concluded.
When Norbo tore her ACL while playing Arizona State in the fifth game of the season, she had never before experienced such a serious injury. A sprained ankle, maybe, had been about the extent of it. Yet there she was, finally getting to where she wanted to be as a collegiate soccer player, only to have it yanked away by a bum knee.
The flip side is she now has that chance to win her sport’s biggest prize at this level.
“I kind of felt like I took a little bit of a step backward with the injury,” Norbo said. “But, now, I could not be happier that I stayed. While it was not fun to be injured at the time, I kind of think everything happens for a reason.”
This has been Norbo’s favorite squad at Virginia, and not just because the Cavaliers have been having a successful season with a lot of wins. The all-important but nearly indefinable team chemistry is the best she’s seen at Virginia. It has made such a difference, she would be willing to do it all again.
The injury and grueling rehabilitation, everything.
“Now that I’m looking back at it, to have the season I’ve had this year, I’d take that injury again if I had to,” she said, without the faintest trace of insincerity in her voice.